Ethics is not a topic that I hear marketers talking about very often, however it is something that I think about frequently because I understand the societal impact of what I do. Marketers can often drive human desires and behaviors, getting people to buy things that they may or may not need, making them feel better or worse about themselves in the process.
Skilled marketers wield a lot of power because between data analysis and intuition, they know how to manipulate people's thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. A long time ago, one client approached me saying that he needed my assistance because I was a "master of the dark arts." This took me aback because I try to be completely ethical in my approach to marketing but I knew what he meant by the comment. It was clearly intended to be a compliment.
So what are some of the ethical issues in marketing? First and foremost is using marketing to make a product that is clearly harmful more appealing to people - for instance, selling cigarettes by appealing to people at a deep emotional level. This can be achieved by linking the cigarette brand to independence, rebellion, good times, coming into one’s own power, etc.
Next is getting people to buy stuff that they just don’t need. How many toys does one child actually need? How many pairs of shoes are enough? Or, how many homes are enough? Some salespeople are so skilled they can get a person to buy something that he doesn't desire and for which he does not have a use.
Then there is using fear to sell something. As we all know, fear works really well as a motivator, however constantly using fear to market products and services only serves to create a more fearful society motivated more by avoidance of potential problems than by embracing that which is beneficial or uplifting.
Related to fear-based marketing is the practice of assigning pejorative labels to competitors' brands, repositioning them as undesirable or even repulsive.
Making false claims is both unethical and illegal. I am personally not as concerned about what is generally considered to be puffery, for instance stating that one’s brand is “the best in the world,” because few people are going to take that statement at face value.
Certainly, an ethical dilemma that most marketing agencies face is whether to do (a) what is in the client’s best interest or (b) what the client wants (if you know that what they want is not in their own best interest). In this situation, are you forthright with the client but then ultimately collect your fees for executing what they desire or do you walk away from the project or business if what you are being asked to do is not in their best interest? Is the client always right or is the client sometimes wrong?
How about getting someone to pay a huge price premium for a product because your brand bestows status on that product? Is this just helping people climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or is it getting them stuck on one step in that ladder (at a hefty profit to the brand)? Anchoring the premium end of a product range with an outrageously high price can get people to trade up to a more expensive product in the middle of the range. And setting an artificially inflated suggested retail price allows for a much bigger price discount, leading to an increased perceived value. Realtors often use the trick of showing their clients properties with poor values first to increase subsequent properties' perceived values.
Knowing that brands can sometimes make people feel more appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, valued, etc. I want to scream to them, “You are already appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, valued, etc. You don’t need a product or brand to be that.”
There is also this question: Does the relentless pursuit of more and better products, services and experiences lead to improved lives with more leisure time and a higher quality of life or does it just constantly raise the bar for what will satisfy while depleting natural resources and placing more demands on peoples’ lives?
Some people medicate themselves with "retail therapy." Each purchase feels good for a while but then more purchases are required to maintain that good feeling.
How about those huge purchases that marketers can get people to make, for instance luxury cars, luxury boats, fine art, expensive wines, etc. Some people can easily afford these things and very much appreciate even minutely incremental improvements in quality. Others however may be stretching their budgets to “keep up with the Joneses.” This second group may experience immediate post purchase remorse after such a large purchase. Is it ethical to market to these people based on aspiration?
And, related to that, if people experience buyer’s remorse immediately after a purchase, is it a good thing or a bad thing to create a post purchase touch point that relieves their anxiety and makes them feel better about the purchase?
Then there is competitive consumption. I am a sailor. In the boating world, it is a relatively common practice to keep trading up to bigger and bigger boats. Heck, among the one tenth of one percent, they are trading in 100 foot yachts for 200 foot yachts and 200 foot yachts for 400 foot yachts. Then it gets even crazier. "My yacht has two helicopters, four jet skies, four personal submersibles, two tenders and bi-level swimming pools. How about yours?"
And what about selling functional substance, a real solution to a problem, versus good feelings? Many brands (and salespeople for that matter) are masterful at selling good feelings without really delivering much else. I often feel this way about motivational speakers. Is something tangible really more valuable than something completely intangible?
And, is it better to market to and deliver on a need or a desire? Is one better than another? What if one desires something that is not good for him or her? Is that the marketer’s problem? Is it another person’s right to judge what is good or bad for another?
So how do I see that marketing can be truly helpful to organizations, brands and their customers? First and foremost, brands can help organizations focus on how they can best add value in the market, especially in unique ways. A brand’s unique value proposition can become the organization’s internal rallying cry, energizing employees and mobilizing them to deliver on the brand’s promise. Marketing can also highlight a particular brand’s unique advantage over competing brands, helping consumers to make more informed decisions. If one includes marketing research as a part of marketing (as well they should), there is a huge advantage to understanding what the customer actually needs and wants so that the organization can deliver it to him or her. Identifying and determining the best ways to meet human needs is a noble endeavor.